Once again, a riveting “Tosca” to remember in Sarasota

By Lawrence A. Johnson

 SARASOTA—All opera aficionados live for those rare performances when everything—singing, acting, conducting and staging—comes together to create a  night in the theater that you never forget. Five years ago it happened at Sarasota Opera with a production of Tosca so wired with crackling intensity it provided one of the most thrilling, if nerve-wracking, performances in memory.

 One consciously downplayed expectations for Sarasota Opera’s revival this season of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker,” not expecting lightning to strike twice in the same place. Yet on Thursday night, with an entirely different trio of principals, the company served up yet another electrifying performance that in some ways even exceeded the live-wire production of 2004. The fact is, Sarasota Opera simply does one hell of a Tosca. 

 The fulcrum, once again, is the full-blooded, richly textured musical direction of Victor DeRenzi. As justly celebrated as Sarasota’s artistic director is for his Verdi conducting, I’m not sure he isn’t an even finer interpreter of Puccini. This was a riveting Tosca with a combustible second act, DeRenzi and the singers ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable level.

 Yet in addition to the dramatic fire, DeRenzi is inspirational in the subtler aspects of the score and its quiet moments. Witness his handling of Tosca’s actions after Scarpia;s death, or his direction of the long introduction to Act 3, tolling bells and shepherd boy in faultless balance and accord. This truly is world-class Puccini conducting.

 Kara Shay Thomson made a spectacular company debut as the tempestuous title diva. The American soprano has a big, bright instrument, gleaming on top and was fearless in her singing, as when she relates to her lover her murder of Scarpia. Yet she also brings delicacy to the role, with a magnificent, deeply felt Vissi d’arte. Thomson is a terrific actress as well, embodying the mercurial Tosca’s jealousy and mood-swings in Act 1 and her shocked horror at the final scene.

 I haven’t been impressed with Rafael Davila’s previous company appearances, but in Cavaradossi, the Puerto Rican tenor appears to finally have the role that suits him vocally and dramatically, giving his finest performance to date. Davila possesses an ample, dark lyric tenor yet had the measure of the high moments, cutting loose with a rafter-raising Vittoria! in Act 2. Davila also provided an ardent, nicely phrased Recondita armonia, and a desperately nostalgic E lucevan e stelle, as well as a convincing fall following Cavaradossi’s “mock” execution.

  Grant Youngblood was an aptly odious Scarpia, his distinguished bearing and chuckling delight in his own evil making the corrupt police chief even more terrifying.  Vocally, Youngblood’s baritone has a steely edge, wholly suited to the villain, bringing an imposing malevolence to the Te Deum and an aptly lascivious intensity to Act 2, roughly manhandling Thomson with daunting realism. Jeffrey Tucker was a big-voiced Sacrisan, Erik Kroncke, a convincingly disheveled Angelotti, and Maria Sulimarski an aptly boyish-toned Shepherd. The chorus singing, directed by Roger L. Bingaman, was on the usual high level.

 David P. Gordon’s sets are one of his finest achievements for the company, not least the eye-popping final tableau for the Castel Saint’Angelo rooftop, with Ken Yunker’s evocative lighting beautifully realizing the slowly rising dawn.  Stephanie Sundine again provided natural and realistic direction of the action with the blistering intensity of Act 2, making all other Tosca productions seem corny by comparison.

 Puccini’s Tosca runs through March 29. $25-$115. 941-366-8450; www.sarasotaopera.org.

 [Photos by Richard Termine.]

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Once again, a riveting “Tosca” to remember in Sarasota”

  1. Posted Mar 17, 2009 at 9:26 pm by Alberto Mederos

    …and they did it again on Saturday afternoon!
    Best Tosca I ever saw.

  2. Posted Mar 29, 2009 at 9:00 pm by Dave R.

    Having spent my first weekend at Sarasota Opera (Don Carlos on the 28th, Tosca on the 29th), I suspect that rarely does one singer standout in Sarasota Opera performances. Rather, it’s the overall quality of the performances. Weak links aren’t weak enough to bring down the overall power, emotion and musicality of their presentations. I didn’t come away from this weekend thinking that there was one singer I couldn’t wait to see again, but I definitely went away planning to return to Sarasota Opera very soon. Fine stuff, especially Tosca. Of course, it all starts and ends in the pit, something Palm Beach Opera also knows. And what great acoustics!

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Sat Mar 14, 2009
at 9:55 am